LONDON – Speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos last month, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, spoke of the need to solve the “intractable” problem of brokering peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. Intractable is a big word. It suggests the problem is insoluble, when the reality is that it is not.
Support for a two-state solution — an independent Palestine alongside the state of Israel — is not a constant, as Peter Beinart illustrated in his book “The Crisis of Zionism.” After Oslo, the high-water mark of optimism, it steadily declined through the second intifada and the conflict with Gaza. Even now, there exists an odd tension in public opinion on both sides, with a desire for the two leaderships to negotiate a settlement set against a much weaker conviction that they are capable of doing it.
None of this should be surprising. Politics, not least the politics of peace negotiations, swings constantly between optimism and pessimism. On one side is the drama of the possibility of change energized by expectation. The other is characterized by a wary stasis.
The question hanging over this latest round of negotiations — as Kerry returns to the region this week to continue discussions over establishing a framework document to further the peace process — is whether sufficient enthusiasm can be rekindled on either side to make progress.
In this respect, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reflects where a substantial section of Israeli politics stands today. While Netanyahu’s long-term obstruction of movement towards a two-state solution has been both narrow and ideological — the reiteration of the hard-line revisionist Zionism espoused by his historian father — he has become in turn the receptacle for a wider pessimism about the peace process.
The situation would be straightforward if this were the whole picture. But it is not. Because that pessimistic Israel exists alongside another Israel that wants to be more normal, that sees the obsession with security and maintaining the occupation of the West Bank as toxic to its own rights. This is an Israel that wants to be open for business.
The 100 or so Israeli business leaders who appealed to Netanyahu at Davos to reach an agreement with Palestinians or face a growing threat of sanctions are neither outliers nor representative of a marginal constituency.
They recognize, as Netanyahu has too in his own way in calling a meeting of ministers to discuss the growing threat, that the movement for divestment from Israeli companies, not least those with interest in the occupation (the BDS movement), is following a familiar pattern to the sanctions movement in South Africa.
A movement at first confined to academia and activist circles has gained traction in churches and now the business world. And however you choose to define the deficit of Palestinian civil rights in the occupied territories, where laws and rights are imposed or enjoyed differentially according to what ID card you hold, its continuation is becoming increasingly corrosive for Israel’s reputation abroad. The decision at the beginning of this month by PGGM, the Netherlands’ biggest pension fund, to cut its ties with five Israeli banks is an indication of the movement’s advances.
Those who have dismissed Netanyahu, including U.S. diplomats who believed he was an obstruction, to be bypassed eventually, have underestimated his talent as a wily politician. He has formed pragmatic partnerships to block progress and has been adroit in synthesizing Israel’s competing anxieties into a single story with broad appeal, one that sustains him in power. In this story, criticism of Israel equals “delegitimization”; the appeal to security equates with a distrust of Palestinian motives that need constantly to be exposed.
But if it is a formula that has worked for the last six years of the Obama administration, there is some evidence that its effectiveness is weakening.
Netanyahu, whose policy of keeping U.S. President Barack Obama at arm’s length through a policy of snubs, complaints and maneuvering, appears to have used most of the weapons in his arsenal. With the threat of war with Iran receding quickly after the recent nuclear deal, a distraction has been removed. The declaration by Obama, who has been pushed into retreat before by Netanyahu, in the State of the Union address last week that he would veto any attempts by Congress to derail that deal is an indication that the game might be changing. That has coincided with a renewed and committed engagement from John Kerry, a secretary of state far more capable than his hyperactive predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
Netanyahu finds himself increasingly exposed in Israeli politics as well. His condemnation by coalition partner and economy minister, Naftali Bennett, for hinting, at Davos, that Israeli settlements on the West Bank might remain as a minority under future Palestinian sovereignty, has not only threatened his coalition but revealed that idea for what it really was — a cynical invitation to Palestinians to reject it.
It is a conflict that has marked a crucial narrowing of Netanyahu’s room to operate. Under increasing U.S. pressure, his convenient alliances with settler-supporting parties and figures who have suggested annexation of large areas of the West Bank and even population transfer have become more awkward and hostile.
Rivals have cleaved to the positions of their minority constituencies. Suddenly, stress points are visible.
If one thing remains unchanged it is Netanyahu’s popularity. According to the most recent Times of Israel poll, he retains a degree of personal popularity (although he has been losing voters from his right-wing core and picking up support from the left and center).
His approval rating of 51 percent, however, is matched by the number who believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, a figure that rises to 71 percent for voters aged 24 and under.
In any snap election, Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party would win the largest number of seats.
Given the exigencies of the politics surrounding the Middle East peace process, only a fool would predict an outcome, not least with some diplomats in Washington assessing only a 10 percent chance of agreement on a framework document even by the April deadline. However, after the long years of stalled negotiations, there is a hint that the tectonic plates might be in motion once again. Whether they will shift the stance of an Israeli prime minister who resigned from government over the Gaza settlement withdrawal and who has vowed in the past to hold on to as much of the West Bank as possible is an even more difficult question.
But the lessons of apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland are that “intractable” problems eventually can be brought to a just resolution. If there should be urgency over this long-festering issue, it is because there is a pressing issue of self-interest. Occupation hurts not only those being occupied. It damages the occupier too.
Peter Beaumont is foreign affairs editor at The Observer.